City & Politics

Manitoba’s dark secret

It oozed oil for a confirmed 10 days, or a rumoured 30, depending on the source. But the oil spill, one of the province’s largest, went unnoticed by most media outlets. Upwards of 100,000 litres, approx., 500 barrels, of oil spilled out a broken underground flow line near the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border, covering an area equivalent in size to two football fields a half mile from Carlyle Jorgensen’s farmland and mere metres from Jackson Creek in an area of the province known to house many rare plant and animal species. The leak is reported to have started end of January of this year. The Brandon Sun was the only major news source to cover the spill. Sun reporter Graeme Bruce broke his usual silence and gave other media, Spectator Tribune, the information it needed to start investigating the story, in the interest of getting the word out.

It seems a newly-proposed national pipeline and Alberta’s recent bout with controversy have wrested attention from the events happening in our own backyard. What other excuse is there for the secrecy? Is 100,000 litres of spilled oil too small to report?

The cause of the spill is yet undetermined, but initial reports and assessments indicate it to be the result of a newer Enbridge line intersecting another line owned by Tundra Oil and Gas. Reports say the leak found on the Tundra line flowed undetected for 10 days, but people living near the site say that the leak had to have been running for about a month, given the amount spilled.

Tundra was contacted for comment; a message was left but not returned.

Red marks sandbags to divert the Jackson Creek; blue marks the spill area; yellow marks the contaminated soil removed from spill site, and green marks soil crews will use to refill area.

Aerial photographs of the site, taken by Jorgensen, show how substantial the spill was. Tundra Oil and Gas is downplaying its impact and severity, but the concern is large enough to force the diversion of Jackson Creek in a bid to keep the oil from contaminating its waters.

“There are a lot of issues that come with oil, and the province likes to keep that quiet,” Jorgensen said. “It’s one of the biggest spills we’ve ever had here in Manitoba.”

There were 90 oil spills in Manitoba in 2012, and this year, as of April, there have already been 47 reported spills, according to a spokesperson from Innovation, Energy and Mines.

Jorgensen had these facts, too, and is acutely aware of the increase in spills and suspicious activity in his area: “ There are too many big companies out here now, competing for monopoly. There was a deliberate dump last year right beside a well and uphill from a nearby creek. The company left it for the creek to clean up.”

Competition is healthy, generally, but the arena is Jorgensen’s farmland, our creeks, and protected species, animal and plant.

Jorgensen and other farmers in the area are at the forefront of a relatively silent industry boom that most associate with Alberta’s oil sands and otherwise larger oil companies. If Manitoba is considered as an oil producer, it is only done so nominally, it seems. This is far from the case.

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Each dot and line marks oil activity. The area pictured is in and around Cromer, Man., in the southwest part of the province.

There are approximately 4000 producing wells, 13 oil fields, and 174 producing oil pools in southwestern Manitoba. In 2011, the province produced 41,093 barrels of oil per day, and that number has only increased since. Oil was first discovered in Manitoba in 1951, according to Manitoba’s Petroleum Branch website, which contains lots of information, maps, and oil stats, much of which was last updated years ago.

The environmental impacts of oil spills are significant, and the attention paid to those impacts is warranted, but Jorgensen’s major fret is the lack of rights farmers have when oil companies want to access a farmer’s land.

“It seems most people want to talk about the conservation side, and not the farmers’ rights side,” Jorgensen said. “If the oil company wants to drill on your land, they can. If a landowner fights it, the case goes to court over compensation, not whether it will happen or not.”

The sale, lease, ownership of mineral rights in Manitoba, and the battles that happen as a result, reveal the impotence of landowners against the will of oil companies. Jorgensen owns the surface rights to his farmland; not the mineral rights.

Disputes between surface rights owners and mineral rights holders go to the province-run Surface Rights Board, an “objective” body that shares office space and runs in close proximity to the province’s Petroleum Branch. The board functions as an “independent, impartial body responsible for hearing all sides, and making decisions within the framework of the Surface Rights Act,” which clearly states that if a landowner’s property is suspect to contain minerals, gas or oil, there is little the owner can do but fight for adequate compensation.

In most cases, oil companies and landowners come to an agreement, privately, prior to any drilling takes place, but in the case an agreement can’t be reached, the landowner can apply to the board to combat the company’s desire for a right of entry permit.

But, on the provincial website of the Surface Rights Board, all cases listed that are related to Right of Entry permits were won by the oil companies or the province, resulting in “Right of Entry application granted.”

Below is the result Carlyle Jorgensen’s 2011 case against T. Bird Oil Ltd.

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Jorgensen moved to the Cromer area to get away from it all. “It’s paradise here in the middle of nowhere,” he said. But now, much of Jorgensen’s land contains batteries, wells, or flow lines. His current fight is to make sure the parcel of land his home is on remains untouched; “It’s difficult having an industrial tenant on your land.”

Mineral rights and surface rights weren’t always distinct.

“Lands given out in the early years of the Dominion Lands Act included rights to the subsoil, including all minerals, oil, or natural gas found below the property. Later grants (after circa 1900) did not include subsoil rights,” according to the province, which currently owns about 20 per cent of the oil and gas rights in southwestern Manitoba. The province holds public offerings of oil and gas rights throughout the year where the rights are leased to the highest bidder, a relatively large source of revenue for Manitoba.

The 1872 Canadian document An Act Respecting the Public Lands of the Dominion, later shortened to Dominion Lands Act, provides, in quips and starts, a starting place for understanding the important history of land ownership in our province. The act aimed to encourage the settlement of the Prairie provinces by offering potential European, American and eastern Canadian settlers 160 acres of free land to the “head of the household,” or anyone who has “attained 21 years of age.”

“Any person who is the head of a family, or has attained the age of 21 years, shall be entitled to be entered for one quarter section, or a less quantity of unappropriated Dominon lands, for the purpose of securing a homestead right in respect thereof.”


“Any person or persons may explore mines or minerals on any of the Dominion lands, surveyed or unsurveyed, and not then marked or stakes out and claimed or occupied, and may, subject to the provision hereinafter, contained, purchase the same.”

The act speaks to a different time, granted, but a different time when the rights of the landowner, at least on paper, would not be so easily superseded by the economic interests of the province or oil companies. Jorgensen is a friend of the economic developments happening nearby his farm, but is not a fan of getting strong-armed. More so, he wants people to know what’s going on here, in our province, as we speak.

Toban Dyck is a writer/editor/farmer. Follow him @tobandyck.

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